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The buzz around net zero

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What is net zero?  Well if you’re uncertain, you’re not alone.

In latest polling, a majority of UK people now say they have heard of it, but only 4% said they knew a lot about it.

Photography Credit: Colin Keldie- Wind Turbines in Orkney, courtesy of Solo Energy.

A systems approach: a better route to net zero?

Given recent analysis suggests a lot of societal change is going to be needed for net zero, this is a cause for concern.  But then, why should they know a lot about it?  Perhaps we should worry less about how to ‘change behaviour’ and worry more about delivering joined-up net zero services that people want and need in future.

Increasingly government, its science advisors and industry are agreeing that net zero is a ‘systems problem’ that needs coordination involving many sectors, technologies new and old, and that lots of options are needed in parallel, rather than deciding between them - we’re right out of silver bullets so we need to make the known armoury work better together to get to net zero.

As polling suggests, few individuals are likely to coordinate this themselves – it’s just too complex.  However, joined-up systemic approaches can ‘hide the wiring’ that puts all this together, delivering services that enable people to live better net zero lives in the future.

“Local” is key to delivering net zero

UKRI’s ‘Prospering from the Energy Revolution’ programme is pioneering this systems approach to unlock the benefits of smart local energy systems.   These can provide a strong foundation for a net zero future – clean, flexible, affordable and efficient energy systems that are fit for societal needs in coming decades.  Increasingly ‘local’ is key to delivering this.

The cheapest and cleanest forms of energy are distributed, not centralised;  new digital technologies can join up all the parts of supply and demand locally in ways that optimise flexible efficiency of existing infrastructure; distributed systems capture value and provide jobs locally, helping distribute prosperity; and society needs clean, cheap energy delivered in ways that suit modern net zero lives, lived locally.

If we can provide cleaner, cheaper services people want to buy then we can scale and unlock investment. What’s missing is proven approaches that can put it all together.

Solar panels in situ on roofs of new build houses
Photography Credit: Colin Keldie -Solar panels in Kirkwall, courtesy of Solo Energy

Energising the journey to net zero

The £200 million energy revolution programme combines public and private funds to prove novel local approaches, and we’re halfway through the programme.  Four world-leading demonstrators are building joined-up local systems in Oxford, West Sussex, Orkney, and Oxfordshire.

Ten design projects across the UK from Southend to Coleraine, Greater Manchester to Milford Haven are developing a highly ambitious project pipeline for the future.

We’re also helping new technologies come to market and helping open up data and its application in this space.   And pulling it all together is the EnergyREV research consortium led out of Strathclyde university who are developing the research base on smart local energy, and the Energy Revolution Integration Service (ERIS) being run by the Energy Systems Catapult which is supporting capability, providing insights from the programme and helping evaluate outcomes.

We’re learning fast from all this activity

Firstly, we’re learning that the anticipated benefits can be delivered via local approaches.  Early indications are that cleaner and cheaper can be achieved while capturing value locally to help level-up local economies.

Secondly, one size does not fit all.  An industrial port area is unlikely to need the same kind of system as an area of high urban regeneration.  A patchwork of locally-optimised systems is needed that join up with the national system effectively.

Thirdly, it’s not easy!  Many different organisations with different aims need to come together to develop a local energy project.  Local authorities are at the heart of making this happen but need to display a level of ambition that often stretches capability.  There is clearly help needed here so ERIS is refocussing on delivering a suite of tools to help stretched local organisations.

Fourthly, regulation can be unhelpful in developing novel integrated systems.  The programme and its participants are increasingly engaging regulators in learnings from the programme to build those into future market arrangements.

Lastly, finance communities remain wary of complex projects like these that are not yet standardised in any way.  Continued work to bring financiers together with projects aims to build a common understanding of needs.

Launching our Six in Sixty webinar mini-series

A new series of webinars begins on 5th November 2020.  These “SixIn60” sessions will bring quickfire updates on the programme, hear from at least six experts in different aspects of local energy and create lively debate about the routes to creating better net zero living in future.

I hope you’ll join us for the first of these when you can hear more about the programme and help shape the content for the upcoming sessions.


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